‘It takes tremendous effort to work one’s way through the difficulties of the path and actually get into the situations of life thoroughly and properly.’
– Chogyam Trungpa, from Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism
When we hear the word ‘discipline’ we usually understand it to mean forcing ourselves into doing things against our will and our instinct. We feel we have to hold our breath lest we slip up or make a mistake, until we get to that goal the discipline is supposed to help us achieve. But in fact, this kind of discipline is only an obstruction to cultivating soul and being on the spiritual path: we cannot feel ourselves and our world properly. When we discipline ourselves in this way, we are really driven by a fantasy or underlying belief-system that James Hillman calls heroism, which he points out is a fundamental fantasy of ego.
The discipline of the spiritual path is very different from this: it is the discipline of openness. It is worthwhile to stop and consider this for a moment: ‘the discipline of openness.’ ... We open ourselves in every moment to what our experience is right now: our feelings, our sensations, what is going on inside us; we open ourselves to meet, encounter and engage whatever challenges the world presents to us in this moment; and we open ourselves to others, to whomever present themselves to us, to whatever demands or challenges they present us with. This discipline is the foundation of being on one’s path; it is the essence of our daily practice and bringing our practice to every moment.
But what does it mean ‘to open’? Pema Chodron points out1 that we all have our own personal idea of what it means ‘to open’ but that it is quite difficult to know what this truly means. This kind of vagueness gives leeway to ego to rationalise that what we already habitually do along our conditioned tracks is indeed ‘opening’, or conversely to beat us up because we are not opening sufficiently enough! And so it is helpful that Chodron shares her insight that in contrast to ‘openness’ we all know what ‘closedness’ means; we all know those moments when we close down. So, the discipline of openness consists of catching ourselves in those moments when we're closing down. And to stop closing.
Stopping the closing down that is already happening in us, is similar to ‘surrendering into the stretch’ as a yoga instructor might say. That is, opening to exactly the very thing we are busy closing down to, is painful. Surrendering into accepting this pain, is surrendering into the stretch. In other words, the discipline of openness involves letting go of the resistances in us that close us down from feeling ourselves properly and from staying open to the world and others.
Another image that describes the feeling of doing this, is that ‘we dissolve our hardnesses’. Chogyam Trungpa2 says that the discipline of openness functions like the sun; the same way the sun shines uninhibitedly without holding anything back. We learn to let go of those resistances that would reserve our openness only for places that feel comfortable or ‘make sense’ to us. ‘Opening’ is how we cultivate a soft, raw, sensitive, tender, awakened heart, which is a requirement before we can even begin to 'make soul'.
Our discipline of openness quickly becomes stale if we try doing it as an isolated technique. It is most definitely a very useful place to start the journey, to take the first steps of opening onto our spiritual path, while at the same time remaining one of the practices that can anchor one enduringly on that path. But just as beautifying, animating and enlivening physical space involves relationships between multiple objects in that space; ‘to make soul’ involves a wide variety of ‘objects’ – processes and practices that form an intricate web of interconnectedness that at some point mysteriously starts to ‘constellate’ soul.
To mention but one other practice, the discipline of openness will only further cultivate the alchemy of making soul to occur in our beings, if we are practicing meditation. What is called meditative awareness gradually starts to develop in us as we start to meditate regularly. We increasingly learn ‘to come back to the breath’ not only on our meditation cushion but also amidst our interactions with the world and others. ‘Coming back to the breath,’ here means learning to become fully present with oneself while being fully present with and open to others. In time meditative awareness begins to permeate and form the background to our everyday existence. It is not something extraordinary; it really is simply being here, now, to be fully and deeply present with what is.
Meditative awareness is a kind of ‘underlying layer’ to our discipline of openness; it really is part of being open and opening. To start with, our discipline here involves that we catch ourselves closing down or ‘being in our heads.’ Then, we come back to feeling our breath right here, wherever we are in our world. And on the outbreath, we open. That is, let go of the hardness and resistance. So you find yourself hardening? Bring your attention back to your breath. To feeling your breath. And, dissolve into being present. You find yourself speeding up? Come back to the breath, slow down into being present.
Eventually, as our spiritual work deepens, meditative awareness gradually begins to simply be there rather than us needing to go back to it all the time. Presence starts to constellate. We are less and less ‘sped around by our minds’ and become increasingly adept at using mind simply as the tool it is. Which means, we can put it aside once it has served its purpose. Only when we're able to do this and when we have learned to act and be without words in our heads, can we rest in the knowledge that we are no longer in the clutches of that parasitic demon by which almost everyone in our world today is possessed: identification with mind.3 We then start to experience what teachers call ‘spaciousness’. We have space inside to be quiet and to receive ‘what is’ without words, without noise, and to respond skilfully.
Somewhere along this journey we discover what Trungpa refers to as ‘echoes,’ which are a consequence of meditative awareness. Chodron aptly describes these echoes as ‘atmospheric’ rather than an echoing voice in words. As we walk through our everyday world, an echo may arise to tell us we’re shutting down, or we’re speeding up, or we’re hardening.
At some point we find ourselves noticing these echoes. And then as part of our discipline, we learn to heed them. For example, when someone is aggressive towards you, you may notice a deeply painful feeling reaction inside you, along with a ‘sense’ that ‘if I react in my usual way, I am only going to escalate the situation’. Both the initial painful feeling and the accompanying ‘sense’ are echoes. Heeding the echo means you stay with that initial painful feeling and you don’t escalate the situation. You pause. You open to the initial gut-feeling and become intimate with it. You befriend it. You stay in the feeling of it.
At this very raw initial point in any process you actually have a choice: to allow yourself to be taken by the tide of ego that obsessively spreads layers and layers of (usually mental) gunk over that basic raw experience. Or you can learn not to hook into the reactivity, to simply stay with the energy of the raw impact, and to learn to work with it in ways that are conducive of soul-making. The further you escalate, the more entangled you get and the more difficult it is ‘to make your way back’. Instead we can learn to open and connect intimately to the feelings inside us and to respond in more skillful ways to situations – we can learn to let things unfold into a whole different direction.
This example just given illustrates how echoes function on a basic level, but as we become more rooted in a culture of ‘soul-making,’ they become fundamental to what is referred to as ‘doing our imaginal work’. These kind of echoes come to us for many reasons, often without being triggered by any event or anything we’ve done, thought or imagined, from the deepest caverns of our own personal history as well as from places beyond what our consciousness have encountered during our lives, and often for ‘reasons’ that have nothing to do with ‘our personal territory’. Soul draws us to her, for her own ‘reasons’, to meet her beyond that place where life is lived only in terms of what makes sense. But these echoes can only come to us if our minds are not filled with noise. On this level echoes are really the seeds of what we call ‘images’ – flirting4 for our attention and interaction with us.
On a more practical ‘surface level,’ echoes appear to warn us that something in our world needs our attention or active response. They often do this without our having paid conscious attention to that 'field of our world' where they are calling from. These practical echoes are hugely significant in that they are ‘the ones looking out for us.’
The fact that they arise gives us the space in which we can let go of constantly needing to mentally calculate and control everything; that is, to become still and be present. This kind of letting go is core to the archetype of The Fool, who both in Tarot and the I Ching plunges over the edge into the abyss. Which is also the essence of how any true spiritual journey begins. It is no coincidence that The Fool appears in both systems at the beginning of their respective journeys. To begin the only truly meaningful journey of one's life, a leap into the unknown is required.
So it is a significant key then, that what really helps us to let go is that our echoes are there to 'catch' us. To give a very mundane example: while being present with washing dishes, an echo comes and reminds us to pack in essential documents for an important meeting at work the next morning. The more we let go of that clinging quality, that attachment we call ‘identification with mind,’ the more open we are to hear our echoes.
Of course, it is important to understand that there is no guarantee that these echoes will ‘warn us’ when we feel they should. But in this lies the key to understand the true meaning of faith. True faith is not the belief that some outcome I want will come true. Rather, it is faith in the journey, in the rightness of the journey. That it is ‘right’ that where this journey takes me is at some places determined by when the echoes come and when they don’t come.
Those moments when we are caught in the aftermath of their not having come, teach us again about the immense importance of having a sense of humour: pause for a moment and notice how seriously we take it all. Often, this pause demands that we come back to true presence. And when we ‘see it’ from true openness, we cannot but see the humour in it all.
When the echoes come, we heed them; that is, we take responsibility; we act according to our ability to respond and we accept the consequences. And if they did not come when we really felt they had to come, we surrender to the fact that ‘we are only co-creators of our world, of our reality’ and we accept wherever this ‘mistake’ takes us. Which includes taking full responsibility for the consequences and ‘learning to dance’ with whatever arises.
We also discover that this makes the journey infinitely more interesting and soulful than the type of ‘traveling’ where we always predetermine our destination, where all our steps are pre-planned, where we always achieve what we set out for. For truly, that is not a ‘journey’ in the true sense of the word. The more deeply we are surrendered to being only a co-creator of our reality, the more space there is for us to learn deeply from life. And the more space there is for uncanny events to occur in ways that clearly demonstrate the presence of something organically creative beyond our personal will and intention.
Following this path we discover our tiny but deeply soulful and appropriate place in this enormous universe of infinitely intricate and magical inter-connections. Its appropriateness amplifies its meaningfulness. A central orienting ‘chord’ holding together the immense symphony of this journey, is our discipline of openness. That is, being fully present with ‘what is’, with whatever is, in meditative awareness.
The ability to respond
The art of responsibility is shaped and refined in us without end. This responsibility is a further element of the discipline of the spiritual path. Trungpa calls this aspect of discipline ‘psychological accuracy and skillful means.’ As Chodron points out, what Trungpa translates as ‘psychological accuracy’ is called prajna in Sanskrit, which really cannot be translated into any one word or phrase. Most often is it translated as ‘wisdom’.
Prajna develops naturally as we learn to meet and engage our world increasingly with openness and meditative awareness. It ‘appears’ as part of our awareness when we have opened into the kind of spaciousness where we are no longer slaves to our basic knee-jerk reactions to accept or reject whatever we encounter. When we have become simply open. Inside this spaciousness it is as if time stretches and we are able to deeply feel our environment and ‘the energies’ of others. Our senses are sharper. Our echoes are acutely precise and bring us pertinent information at key moments. Prajna really means we see clearly.
Skillful means entails the simple and precise action that follows naturally on such clear seeing. In other words, we’re open and we receive whatever we encounter without any prejudice, and so we feel deeply into what is, and are moved into acting appropriately. In Taoism, this is what is called Wu Wei, or ‘action through non-action’, which is to say, egoless action. The ‘discipline’ here, really is for us ‘to step out of the way’ and allow what is natural to move us into action while being fully present with what we’re doing.
This egoless action involves the same faith we touched on under echoes. Trungpa says prajna and skillful means function like a bow and arrow: the bow of prajna is gentle, while the arrow of skillful action is sharp and ‘crisp’ in its flight and precision. The bow provides stability and support for the quiet, effortless and skillful release of the arrow and its swift and precise flight hitting the target. It is significant then to notice that true responsibility does not develop because of our willpower or our commitment, but through the development of meditative awareness that is rooted in surrender, in letting go of always controlling everything mentally.
1. In her DVD Smile at Fear, which may be purchased on the Pema Chodron Foundation website. All references to Chodron in the above article refer to her discussion here.
2. See Trungpa's books, Shambhala - the Sacred Path of the Warrior, and Smile at Fear - Awakening the True Heart of Bravery. All references to Trungpa in the above article refer to these two works.
3. It was Eckhart Tolle who pointed out that ‘almost everyone’ are possessed by ‘identification with mind,’ in his book, The Power of Now.
4. The word ‘flirting’ is used here in homage to Arnold Mindell, who coined the term in his book, The Quantum Mind and Healing, where he was essentially talking about echoes.